Dreads, yams and hope
Brixton may be the streetwise, restless soul of south London, but is it ripe for tourism? Yes, says resident Simon Lewis
Sunday 26 January 1997
It used to be horrible in this lift: "BNP" slashed into the wall and it stank of piss. Steel and cameras is better.
This is the improved, new formula Brixton. Money is getting pumped in. Brixton Riot is the name of a rum cocktail in a new wine bar; tourists are looking for something new.
The good old days
This is not the first time. Back in the 1920s and 1930s Brixton was a genteel place, a centre for theatre. Electric Avenue, off Coldharbour Lane, was one of the first roads in Europe to get electric street lighting. The area went downhill in the Forties, not helped by the stripping away of metal awnings over the Avenue to make bombs during the war. The biggest of the old theatres have been converted to clubs. Brixton is now one of the nightlife hotspots of the capital, with any number of venues catering for the sets and subsets of the capital's cultures.
Not everybody's happy. House prices are rising; it's the new yuppie frontier. Locals fear the tide of money will smooth out the bumps, bland out the area into a united colours of Brixton ethnic shopping mall, make it look like Croydon.
Coldharbour Lane still has a homely shabbiness though. We're walking past the old dole office. It used to be a squat and run as an alternative arts centre; there was a gallery and caff and you could do yoga then have a smoke with the teacher. Then the building was bought up, the hippies got kicked out, and the windows boarded up again. John Major used to sign on there. He grew up round here somewhere. I saw a programme a few years back in which he was driven round Brixton in a Range-Rover. His face crinkled with pleasure as he reminisced about his childhood. He did not get out of the car.
I wonder what the locals thought of the Prime Minister's shadowy form peering through the tinted windows of the cruising Range-Rover. Likely they took him for a particularly successful drug dealer, prowling his turf - Range-Rovers have replaced BMWs as their vehicle of choice. That's an example of what ad execs call the development of unexpected secondary markets, and its something you see a lot of in Brixton. The immaculate gear of the rude boys hanging out along the Lane is by Tommy Hilfiger, the preppy American designer. Nice white kids in the pubs are sporting dreads.
There's a manic energy about Brixton - it's the cultural cocktail. Nowadays it is the biggest Afro-Caribbean centre for 1,000 miles, a proud community a world away from Mr Major's warm beer and cricket matches. One of the best things is the shopping. The street market is Brixton's greatest asset, offering yams, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, plantain, soursup, and fish like Jamaican snapper and barracuda. If you're snacking, you're never far from a pattie, and the local sandwich bars have swordfish and jerk chicken on the menu. The street sellers hawk knock-off designer labels and tat, and there's always someone selling incense outside the tube. It may not be London's cleanest Tube station, but it's the sweetest smelling.
The attitude in the street here isn't normally seen in this climate. It's a place to hang out, not just to move through, given a soundtrack by the dub and reggae blasting out of shop doors. If it's cold, you can head for the caffs: Pushkar on Market Row for jasmine tea and scones, Portuguese Max's on Station Road for a wicked espresso, and El Pilon Quindiano in Granville Arcade for Colombian cornbreads you eat off banana leaves.
As for us, strolling away a Friday night, we're now at the junction with Railton Road. The pub on the corner used to be called the Atlantic; it was said that if you got off the plane from Jamaica and went there you were bound to meet a relative or friend. It got closed down, and now it's reopened as the Dogstar, Brixton's trendiest venue that aims for squatty casualness with big spaces, comfy sofas and arty decor. Bouncers on the door won't let groups of black men in. In the last riots the place was set on fire.
" 'ash, man?" Further up Coldharbour Lane, hustlers move out of the shadows. You'd have to be desperate to buy one of their Oxo cubes. There are some highly civilised restaurants along here, including an Indonesian, the Satay Bar, and an Eritreian, the Asmara. There's also Lambeth's good old Ritzy Cinema on the corner. We head for The Hobgoblin on Effra Road, one of the liveliest pubs.
Someone talks to someone who's heard from someone that there might be something going on in Angel Town, a grim estate at the other end of Brixton. Clusters of Italian crusties give us directions. A lot of the most whacked out people in Brixton are south Europeans.
Somewhere in the geometric maze of Angel Town a free party crew are squatting in an old children's home and have set up a couple of sound systems. DJs are mixing in old classrooms. We settle for the basement, which pounds with drum and bass.
It's hours before we get outside again. Silence except the ringing in our ears. Then a cock crows. We stand and gawp. It comes from a trashed set of houses down the road, where some travellers are parked. Dawn. I'm only 300yds from my block but it takes me 20 minutes to get home; there are 15 monoliths identical to mine. I doubt that Mr Major grew up in this landscape. In other ways, though, this is his Brixton.
l The Dogstar pub has a membership scheme. Non-members pay pounds 4 entry after 10pm. The pub also contains the Diva Cafe, which serves meals and hot drinks.
l The Hobgoblin pub is on Effra Road, 15 minutes walk south of Brixton Tube Station.
l Max's Portuguese Cafe is on Brixton Station Road, two minutes walk east of the main Brixton Road. Great all-day breakfasts.
l The Fridge (0171 326 5100; call ahead for information of events on specific nights). The most famous nightclub venue in Brixton, is on Brixton Hill Road, five minutes walk south from Brixton Tube Station.
l Asmara Restaurant, 386 Coldharbour Lane (0171 737 4144). A good-value, bright-red Eritreian eaterie.
l Brixton Academy (0171 326 5100). The major venue for bands.
l Satay Bar (0171 326 5001) 447-455 Coldharbour Lane. Indonesian restaurant a couple of minutes east off Brixton Road.
l Ritzy Cinema (0171 737 2121). One of the best multi-screen cinemas in London, which shows a mix of blockbusters and art-house films. Also contains a great cafe.
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